By Poornima Vijayashanker (Founder & CEO, BizeeBee)
I’ve gotten some requests recently to write a post on how we’ve gotten early adopters at BizeeBee and how we got them at Mint. I hate to burst everyone’s tech bubble but there is no secret for getting early adopters. I also want to address two concepts in this posts: getting early adopters vs. methods for customer acquisition.

The reason for the dichotomy is that an early adopter is essentially a product tester and evangelist. They will stick around forever and are highly critical to the success of your business because they promote your product, but to me they are not really customers. Why? Because early adopters are people whom you get by talking to them directly and they help you build out the alpha/beta versions of your product. They’re loyal, and will give you lots of feedback. Customers are the people you pay to acquire through advertising, struggle trying to keep engaged, churn through, and whom early adopters get to buy your product through word of mouth marketing.

Why do you want early adopters? And how to do you get early adopters?

Because early adopters actually prove product/market fit. Your early adopters are the folks who are going to use your product, give you honest feedback, and will wade through bugs and various iterations.

First you need to figure out who you’re trying to solve a problem for by creating a persona. Then you need to get out, show them your prototype (preferably one that is paper-based), and then ask them to try out the actual prototype. Drop-off point #1, people are busy… You’ll get a lot of “sure contact me when it’s ready” or “send me access to a demo”. In reality you need to talk to a lot of folks before you can even get one to respond, play with the product, and give you feedback, which by the way is the whole point of getting early adopters!

The key to getting more early adopters is to think like one. Figure out where these folks hang out (online and offline), what they read, where they learn about products, and who they learn about products from. Then go out and talk your product up in these channels. What you’ll most likely hear is what we heard at BizeeBee a bunch of: “No, we’re not interested.” So we changed our approach, instead of trying to sell the product to people we started asking “Why don’t you like our product? Who do you think would be interested in trying this out?” And that’s when things got interesting…

We got some “Well I know this guy in New Orleans who just opened a small studio…” and a “Oh my studio is too big, but our second studio is relatively small…”

Now of course we get “Well I really need this for my vertical, when is it going to be out?” Hook, line, and sinker

The final point I’ll make about early adopters is that they’re great for testing out the product’s concept, workflows, and positioning in the market.

And now the challenge begins…

How do you get customers?

When I first moved to the Bay Area in 2004 I’d heard buzz words like social and viral, because Facebook was dominating the market in terms of growth and there were social networks galore. Now 7 years later I hear countless stories from startups who basically talk about how they hustled by iterating on the product, and finding the right customer base to target until they saw traction like Airbnb and Square.

At Mint, we acquired customers through a combination of AdWords, InfoGraphics, and PR in print (blogs, magazines, newspapers, etc.). PR was the most significant channel but also the most expensive approach, so I don’t know if I’d advocate it for every early stage startup.

What’s more interesting is the approach we took and how we explored various channels, measured the results, measured engagement, and then looked to see a correlation between engagement and monetization. IMHO you don’t really have a customer until you monetize off of them.

We monetized off of lead gen, which is one tactic amongst a wide array. The good news is that unlike the early to mid-2000s when everyone was giving away their product in hopes of making money off of advertising and users were use to everything being free, nowadays users are willing to pay for things on the interwebs, but only for things they absolutely can’t live without…

Acquire first, monetize second?

Call me a capitalist but I’m not sure when the concept of going into business to give stuff away became the norm. Yes I think you should pay to acquire a customer, that is of course the point of advertising and marketing, but this phenomenon of essentially giving away your product for free in hopes of luring a bunch of users, getting them hooked on the product, and then charging them seems silly to me. That’s got to be the fastest way to make a hockey stick graph flip 180 degrees on its x-axis… Even in a platform play there’s going to be a level of engagement (as in click throughs and conversions). So what’s the point of having a 100k users if you can only monetize off of 1k or worse 1 of them? You can of course build a cool product to sell it to someone else, in which case that should be your monetization scheme, i.e. exit strategy.

So to summarize:

  • Get some early adopters to fall in love, play with your product, and give you constant feedback.
  • Getting customers is going to be a bit of a shotgun approach, but measure each channel, and test which ones convert to paying. Be quick about this unless your gut tells you that some channels take longer than others.
  • If you’re going to give something away for free you need to make up the cost of building it somewhere else.

Remember this is a hard process and it takes time. But it gets easier if you create feedback loops, listen to what your early adopters and customers are telling you.

If the product sucks fix it, if the pricing is confusing make it clearer, if marketing is expensive look for less expensive channels, and if you aren’t building something that people want then figure out what they do want and build that!

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Poornima Vijayashanker is Founder & CEO of BizeeBee. Prior to that, she was at Mint where she began as employee #3 in 2006, and stayed through the startup’s acquisition by Intuit for $170M in 2010. Prior to Mint, she was in the Master’s degree program for computer science at Stanford University but dropped out to join Mint. Poornima holds a double degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science from Duke University. Poornima blogs on and is a competitive yoga. Follow her on Twitter at @poornima.